Vatican Upholds Excommunications
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nine years after Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz ordered Catholics in Lincoln to sever their ties to 12 dissident organizations or face potential excommunication, the Vatican has rejected an appeal by the Chicago-based reform group Call to Action, letting stand the bishop’s original order.
It’s not clear when the diocese was told that the appeal was rejected. In a March 5 Associated Press report, Father Mark Huber, a spokesman for the diocese, said Bishop Bruskewitz was notified “some time ago.” Father Huber received questions for the bishop from the Register. However, neither he nor anyone else from the diocese responded as the paper went to press.
The recent actions date back to March 19, 1996, when Bishop Bruskewitz forbid Catholics in and of the Diocese of Lincoln from membership in 12 groups. Those 12 groups included: Planned Parenthood, Society of Saint Pius X, Hemlock Society, Call to Action, Call to Action Nebraska, Saint Michael the Archangel Chapel, Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls, and Catholics for a Free Choice.
“Membership in these organizations or groups is always perilous to the Catholic faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic faith,” Bishop Bruskewitz wrote in the order.
Bishop Bruskewitz then gave members a month to renounce their membership and seek reconciliation. Those who remained members after April 15, 1996 were forbidden to receive holy Communion.
“Contumacious persistence in such membership for one month following the interdict on part of any such Catholics will by that very fact cause them to be excommunicated,” said the order.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1463), “Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts.” In addition, under excommunication, Catholics cannot be married or receive Christian burial unless the individual first repents and is reconciled with the Church.
“The Code of Canon Law expressly recognizes the right of diocesan bishops, as well as the pope, to enact laws for their dioceses,” said canonist Charles Wilson, executive director of the San Antonio-based St. Joseph Foundation, which serves Catholics who seek to know and exercise their rights within the Church.
“Bishop Bruskewitz, by enacting the legislation, was exercising his proper role as legislator for the Diocese of Lincoln.”
The potential excommunication received widespread media coverage, including mention on NBC’s Today show. Following the announcement, the diocese stated that it had received more than 4,000 messages from individuals, 95% supporting the bishop’s action.
Not everyone, though, was pleased by the bishop’s statement.
“We are embarrassed for Bishop Bruskewitz and for the Catholic Church of Lincoln, Neb.,” said Call to Action’s co-director, Sheila Daley, at the time of the order. “The intemperate action of threatening Lincoln Diocese Call to Action members with excommunication unless they resign from Call to Action violates the most basic principles of justice.”
When attempts at local reconciliation failed, Call to Action appealed to Rome.
“All the bishop did was inform those who belonged to these types of dissident groups that they placed themselves outside of the Church,” said canon lawyer Pete Vere, author of Surprised by Canon Law. “He gave them a month to comply. After a month they automatically incurred an excommunication.”
Wilson said that Call to Action chose the wrong avenue for their appeal.
“Call to Action probably appealed to the wrong people,” he explained, stating that the group was appealing an administrative decision when they should have been appealing a legislative act. “Their appeal should have gone to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which has the authority to rule on the constitutionality of a law.
“The question that comes to my mind is whether one who embraces the agenda of Call to Action has placed himself in opposition to the teaching of the Church, or has gone beyond that to separating himself from the Church entirely,” Wilson said. “The legislation of the Diocese of Lincoln provides that one who maintains membership in the organization warrants excommunication.”
Vere said that the action is consistent with a bishop’s duty.
“He didn’t just excommunicate them,” said Vere. “If it had been done ruthlessly, simply to punish the individual, that would be different, but these are dissident groups that have been leading Catholics astray,” said Vere. “The bishop’s duty is to protect the flock. He gave them a canonical warning and gave the members an opportunity to renounce their membership in these groups and remain in good standing with the Church. It was only then, when the members remained obstinate that he resorted to censures.”
Others feel Bishop Bruskewitz went too far. Msgr. Kenneth Lasch, a retired canon lawyer in Morristown, N.J., told the AP that the bishop’s blanket action was “against the whole spirit of Church law.”
“It’s one thing to disagree with a law, but it’s not against the whole spirit of canon law,” said Wilson, quoting Canon 1311: “‘The Church has its own inherent right to constrain with penal sanctions Christ’s faithful who commit offences.’
“Bishop Bruskewitz is exercising his pastoral authority for the care of souls,” he said. “It’s designed to cause the member to repent and return to full communion. That is the intent of the penalty.”
Wilson noted that for the full effects of the penalty to apply, the diocese would need to make an official declaration.
Excommunication, noted Vere, while within the spirit of canon law, should be used sparingly, and only when there is a high degree of obstinacy and all other attempts to correct the situation have failed.
“Given the anti-Catholic nature of the groups named, I would have to agree that membership in such groups warranted excommunication,” said Vere. “While some may find it unusual, Bishop Bruskewitz is taking seriously his three functions as outlined in the Second Vatican Council to govern, to sanctify and to proclaim the Gospel.
“He is governing the Church by maintaining discipline among Catholics,” he said. “He is sanctifying by ensuring that Catholics do not become ensnared in anti-Catholic organizations, and he is proclaiming the Gospel by exposing that within these groups which is contrary to the Gospel.”
Tim Drake writes from
Saint Joseph, Minnesota.
- March 27-April 2, 2005